MarsNews.com
June 13th, 2018

Enormous Dust Storm On Mars Threatens The Opportunity Rover

A series of images shows simulated views of a darkening Martian sky blotting out the Sun from NASA’s Opportunity rover’s point of view, with the right side simulating Opportunity’s current view in the global dust storm (June 2018).
NASA/JPL-Caltech/TAMU

A massive dust storm on Mars is threatening NASA’s Opportunity rover, which has been conducting research on the Red Planet for well over a decade.

Where the rover sits, the dust storm has completely blotted out the sun, depriving Opportunity of solar power and cutting off communications with Earth.

NASA scientists believe the rover has fallen asleep to wait out the storm, and that when the dust storm dies down and sunlight returns, the rover will resume activity.

“We’re concerned, but we’re hopeful that the storm will clear and the rover will begin to communicate with us,” says John Callas, the Opportunity project manager.

The rover has survived dust storms before, but it’s never lost power this thoroughly.

The dust storm on Mars grew from a small, local storm into a massive event over the course of the last two weeks. Opportunity is located near the middle of the storm, while the newer rover Curiosity — which is nuclear-powered, so not threatened by the loss of sunlight — is currently near the storm’s edge.

June 7th, 2018

Curiosity Rover Finds 3.5-Billion-Year-Old Organic Compounds and Strange Methane on Mars

A potential explanation for the seasonal Martian methane.
Illustration: NASA/JPL-Caltech

No, NASA hasn’t discovered life on Mars yet—but a new result makes it seem like maybe, at some point in the planet’s history, the conditions were ripe for some extraterrestrial beings. Maybe.

The scientists behind experiments conducted by the Curiosity rover are today reporting two results that make the Red Planet’s story even more interesting. One group found carbon-containing organic matter in 3.5-billion-year-old rock. Another noticed the methane levels around Curiosity varied by the season. Combined, these results present tantalizing hints of a potentially habitable Martian past.

From everything we can tell of the chemistry and the minerals deposited in the Gale crater where Curiosity is stationed, “we think it was a habitable environment,” Jennifer Eigenbrode from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center told Gizmodo. “It had the ability to support life—but doesn’t mean life were there.”

As for the methane, Curiosity’s Tunable Laser Spectrometer measured the methane levels in its surrounding atmosphere over five years. The levels averaged at 0.41 parts per billion by volume, but ranged from 0.24 to 0.65 depending on the season. Here on Earth, we associate methane with life, but it’s a mystery what could be causing it on Mars. Perhaps it’s some geologic process. “It probably indicates more active water in the subsurface than we understood,” scientist Kirsten Siebach, Martian geologist at Rice University not involved with the studies, told Gizmodo.

April 26th, 2018

Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter sends its first color picture of Mars – and it’s spectacular

An image from the CaSSIS camera on the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter shows the rim of Korolev Crater on Mars. Click on the image for a larger version. (ESA / Roscosmos / CaSSIS Image)

The first color image to come from a camera aboard the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter in its Mars-mapping orbit shows the ice-coated rim of Korolev Crater in sharply shadowed detail.

“We were really pleased to see how good this picture was, given the lighting conditions,” Antoine Pommerol, a member of the science team for the Color and Stereo Surface Imaging System, said today in a news release. “It shows that CaSSIS can make a major contribution to studies of the carbon dioxide and water cycles on Mars.”

The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, a mission jointly supported by the European and Russian space agencies, is built to measure the composition of Mars’ thin atmosphere with unprecedented accuracy. Its top task is to look for methane and other trace gases that could hint at biological or geological activity.

The car-sized probe was launched in 2016, and after a series of aerobraking maneuvers, it reached its final 250-mile-high orbit around Mars this month. Its spectrometers began “sniffing” atmospheric molecules just last weekend.

August 18th, 2017

Mars has eclipses. We have video.

(NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Texas A&M University)

(NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Texas A&M University)

If you think solar eclipses on Earth are cool, wait till you get a load of an eclipse on Mars.

Earth typically experiences anywhere from four to seven eclipses in a year, counting partial solar eclipses (when the moon doesn’t fully obscure the sun) and lunar eclipses (when the earth’s shadow partially obscures the moon).

On Mars, however, solar eclipses are practically a daily event. Mars has two moons — tiny, potato-shaped satellites named Phobos and Deimos, after the Greek deities of fear and dread, respectively.

June 2nd, 2017

12 striking facts about Mars that will make you a fan of the red planet

Diana Yukari/Business Insider

Diana Yukari/Business Insider

Humanity has sent dozens of probes and satellites to Mars over the decades.

These plucky spacecraft have beamed back dazzling photos, inspired hit sci-fi movies like “The Martian”, and even gave Elon Musk the idea to colonize the red planet.

But how much do you really know about Earth’s next-door neighbor?

Even though humans have yet to arrive and there are still plenty of mysteries to solve, scientists have figured out a great deal about Mars.

From what it’s like on the surface to the most impressive landmarks to the presence of an ancient ocean (and tsunamis!), keep scrolling to learn 12 incredible facts about Mars you probably didn’t know.

April 5th, 2017

Mars rover spots clouds shaped by gravity waves

Panoramic image showing cirrus clouds in the Martian atmosphere, taken by the Opportunity rover in 2006. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/M. Howard, T. Öner, D, Bouic & M. Di Lorenzo

Panoramic image showing cirrus clouds in the Martian atmosphere, taken by the Opportunity rover in 2006. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/M. Howard, T. Öner, D, Bouic & M. Di Lorenzo

NASA’s Curiosity rover usually keeps its instruments firmly focused on Mars’s ground, zapping grit with its laser or drilling cores in bedrock. But every few days, the SUV-sized robot, like any good dreamer, shifts its sights upward to the clouds.

Well into its fifth year, the rover has now shot more than 500 movies of the clouds above it, including the first ground-based view of martian clouds shaped by gravity waves, researchers reported here this week at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. (Gravity waves, common atmospheric ripples on Earth that result from air trying to regain its vertical balance, should not be confused with gravitational waves, cosmological ripples in spacetime.) The shots are the best record made so far of a mysterious recurring belt of equatorial clouds known to influence the martian climate.

Understanding these clouds will help inform estimates of ground ice depth and perhaps recurring slope lineae, potential flows of salty water on the surface, says John Moores, a planetary scientist at York University in Toronto, Canada, who led the study with his graduate student, Jake Kloos. “If we wish to understand the water story of Mars’s past,” Moores says, “we first need to [separate out] contributions from the present-day water cycle.”

April 4th, 2017

Mars’ Trojans Show Remains of Ancient Planetoid

The paths traced by the known Martian Trojans around L4 or L5 (crosses) relative to Mars (red disk) and the Sun (yellow disk). The dotted circle indicates the average Sun-Mars distance. Right: Enlargement of inset (dashed rectangle) showing the paths of the 8 L5 Trojans: 1998 VF31 (marked as

The paths traced by the known Martian Trojans around L4 or L5 (crosses) relative to Mars (red disk) and the Sun (yellow disk). The dotted circle indicates the average Sun-Mars distance. Right: Enlargement of inset (dashed rectangle) showing the paths of the 8 L5 Trojans: 1998 VF31 (marked as “VF31” – blue), Eureka (red) and the 6 objects identified as family members (amber). The filled disks indicate the relative sizes of the asteroids. Eureka, the largest member, is about 2 km across. Figure credit: Apostolos Christou (E-mail: aac@arm.ac.uk)

Trojan asteroids are a fascinating thing. Whereas the most widely known are those that orbit Jupiter (around its L4 and L5 Lagrange Points), Venus, Earth, Mars, Uranus and Neptune have populations of these asteroids as well. Naturally, these rocky objects are a focal point for a lot of scientific research, since they can tell us much about the formation and early history of the Solar System.

And now, thanks to an international team of astronomers, it has been determined that the Trojan asteroids that orbit Mars are likely the remains of a mini-planet that was destroyed by a collision billions of years ago. Their findings are detailed in a paper that will be published in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society later this month.

For the sake of their study, the team – which was led by Galin Borisov and Apostolos Christou of the Armagh Observatory and Planetarium in Northern Ireland, examined the composition of Marian Trojans. This consisted of using spectral data obtained by the XSHOOTER spectrograph on the Very Large Telescope (VLT) and photometric data from the National Astronomical Observatory‘s two-meter telescope, and the William Herschel Telescope.

March 31st, 2017

NASA orbiter shows Mars lost 90 per cent of its CO2 to space

It vanished into thin air. Around 90 per cent of the Red Planet’s atmosphere was probably lost to space over just a few hundred million years, according to a key measurement from NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft.

Today Mars is a freezing, arid desert with an atmosphere 1 per cent as dense as Earth’s and its water mostly locked up in polar ice caps.

But most planetary scientists think it was not always so. Certain Mars soils contain minerals that on Earth are produced in the presence of water, and some Martian features seem to point towards ancient lakebeds and even fast-flowing rivers. To have retained this liquid water, the planet’s carbon dioxide-dominated atmosphere must once have been much thicker to limit surface evaporation.

MAVEN has been orbiting Mars since 2014 on a quest to find out where all that CO2 went. It could have gone into the ice caps, into the rocks as carbonate minerals or it could have been lost to space.

January 31st, 2017

Love Science? Mars Needs You

NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Mars has some impressive geological features across its cold, desiccated surface, many of which are similar to featured found here on Earth. By studying them, scientists are able to learn more about the natural history of the Red Planet, what kinds of meteorological phenomena are responsible for shaping it, and how similar our two planets are. A perfect of example of this are the polygon-ridge networks that have been observed on its surface.

One such network was recently discovered by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) in the Medusae Fossae region, which straddles the planet’s equator. Measuring some 16 story’s high, this ridge network is similar to others that have been spotted on Mars. But according to a survey produced by researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, these ridges likely have different origins.

This survey, which was recently published in the journal Icarus, examined both the network found in the Medusae Fossae region and similar-looking networks in other regions of the Red Planet. These ridges (sometimes called boxwork rides), are essentially blade-like walls that look like multiple adjoining polygons (i.e. rectangles, pentagons, triangles, and similar shapes).

November 22nd, 2016

Widespread, Thick Water Ice found in Utopia Planitia, Mars

This vertically exaggerated view shows scalloped depressions in a part of Mars where such textures prompted researchers to check for buried ice, using ground-penetrating radar aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

This vertically exaggerated view shows scalloped depressions in a part of Mars where such textures prompted researchers to check for buried ice, using ground-penetrating radar aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

My paper on the discovery of a widespread (~375 000 sq km) subsurface water ice deposit in southwestern Utopia Planitia, Mars, was published in Geophysical Research Letters (GRL) a few weeks back, along with a NASA press release today. The detailed version is offered in the journal article, but I thought I’d include a higher-level description of what’s up in here.

When you look at Utopia Planitia, there’s a lot of weird stuff going on. For those that aren’t intimately familiar with martian geography, Utopia Planitia is a huge, ~3300 km diameter basin that formed by impact early in Mars’ history. It makes up part of what’s known as the northern plains, the more-or-less flat terrain north of the martian dichotomy boundary. For as long as we’ve had good imagery from the region, we’ve noticed interesting features on the surface—features like polygonal cracked terrain and oddly-shaped, rimless pits called “scalloped depressions”. When we see features like this on Earth, they’re associated with subsurface ice or permafrost. These features led scientists to believe that this is an ice-rich region of Mars, and inspired my team to examine radar sounding data from the area.